Dispatches from the 2022 Vancouver Folk Music Festival day three (Sunday)
Day three of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival began on the South Stage. It is never easy getting up early enough for the gospel hour at the end of a jam-packed weekend, but it was oh so worth it! Sunday Soul Healing with Frazey Ford, Allison Russell and Clerel was as close to going to church as we two atheists care to be. Our often blasphemous host, Frazey Ford, set the tone in her denim jumpsuit and lazy purr. With her song “You Got Religion” she called on us all to ditch the parts of us that still participate in racism, homophobia and the patriarchy. Montreal’s Clerel may have one of the prettiest voices at the fest, though he did worry that his speaking voice was never quite loud enough to carry. When he started us off with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” we all felt a little closer to our brothers and sisters here at Jericho Beach Park. And needless to say, he absolutely killed Smokey Robinson’s Cruisin’ in this covers-heavy set. Allison and her top-notch band-mates Joy Clark, Chauntee Ross and Mandy Fer continued to woo the few remaining audience members who haven’t already been bathed in their talent. It’s hard not to be struck by the combination of killer musicianship and meaningful lyrics. Allison recalled breastfeeding her babe on this very stage not so long ago and sent out a tune to her partner in all things, JT Nero. We were particularly struck by Frazey’s intro to “Weather Pattern,” where she pointed out that, while every single person we know will eventually die, we have no preparation or acceptance of grieving in our culture – aside from music perhaps. When she wrapped up with a request for her hit “Done,” we all got our tired bodies up for a healing dance party. We’re feeling exceedingly blessed to have borne witness to this heavenly workshop.
Newfoundland’s Quote The Raven confirmed our initial assessment that they are songbirds to watch for as we briefly dipped in to their concert on the East Stage. Next up, Toronto’s Russell deCarle and his seasoned band of sidemen proved that experience matters. He’s a class act who knows how to get your heart and mind tapping along with a quality combination of southern soul and swing. At the Heartworn Highways workshop we then saw Ford Pier, Fortune Block and Alejandro Escovedo in what would have been a more traditional set if not for Ford’s cheeky folk punk take on the blues.
After this morning’s soulful workshop, we were all looking forward to Clerel’s concert on the East Stage. This Cameroonian-born, Montreal-based artist sang chill love songs from his latest release, Under a Guava Tree, a record he made with on-stage collaborator Japanese-Canadian engineer, producer, and guitarist Kento Kataok. There is no denying how well the sweetness of Clerel’s angelic falsetto compliments his laid-back lyrical refrains and soft touch on nylon string guitar. Our delight was real when he switched to his native French language for part of the set, where those simple themes sounded deeper somehow. Inspired to sing by his grandmother as a child when visiting Cameroon, his life took a musical turn from studying chemistry after a visit to Memphis, and then on to open mics in Montreal and eventually performing on Stephen Colbert’s show. Ending his set with what he joked was his one upbeat number, we all rose to our feet and joyously danced in appreciation. He is such a shy seeming performer who spent much of his time on stage with eyes closed, speaking softly, smiling shyly, or staring at his microphone intensely. We were surprised at just how effusive (and tall!) he was to meet in person a little later at the beer garden where we saw him get IDed before entering – exactly nobody we were with had been IDed up until then, so he must have been looking a good deal fresher than the rest of us.
Over on the West Stage the theme was We Are Family with Haley Heynderickx, Shovels & Rope, and The Bros. Landreth. A lot of variety here with Haley so self-effacing and chill. The Bros. Landreth would have liked to stay in the same tender vein but had to compete with the soundcheck on the mainstage – something that happens all too often on this stage – and so had to resort to a rocking blues number that the others were unwilling to join in on. Portlandia’s Haley Heynderickx felt forced to be equally as fun, and she succeeded, with her TikTok worthy ditty “Oom Sha La La” from her full-length debut, I Need to Start a Garden. Heroic efforts on behalf of Shovels and Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst to keep their songs on topic were appreciated by her man Michael Trent. This husband-and-wife duo from South Carolina sure knows how to keep a crowd in thrall. The fact is we rushed home to listen to their song “Human Race” again with it’s all too true ending – so glad we were able to recall the song title! The duo reminded us once more that Americans find our festival workshops unique, something I can’t say we knew was a Canada-only affair. Hurray for Canada as these mash-ups have led to some of the more magical moments at festivals all over the country.
Toronto’s Witch Prophet followed with their spiritually diverse set of operatic soul and decidedly alternative R&B. I’m not even sure what we were hearing when a song started with an acoustic guitar riff – yet no guitarist in sight – thanks to on-stage support from DJ/Producer @sunsunbeats. And nothing beats hearing the true stories behind the songs at these events. Front woman Ayo Leilani sang one song about the man she calls her ex, imploring us to feel free to raise our fists in solidarity even if he was in attendance (which he was not). She followed this with a song she wrote after a chance meeting with a woman on the street. She bumped into her again after finishing the composition and insisted on singing it to the perplexed gal – who is now her wife of many years. The power of a gender fluid love song! To quote Pitchfork Magazine, “Get to her before Drake does.”
If you were looking for the quintessential sunny afternoon Mexican-flavoured festive musical extravaganza dance party then look no further than the Muy Caliente! workshop with RevoluSon and Tom & Kalissa Landa. It was such a joyful collaboration hosted by local sweethearts Tom and Kalissa, who know just how to impress an audience with their great talent and commitment to giving an audience what they truly desire. Based in Guanajuato, Mexico, the members of RevoluSon got us moving with their blend of traditional Cuban Son, Changui and other regional dance rhythms, as well as original pieces composed and arranged by band members León Méndez, Adrian Espin and Luis Hugo Ramirez Barajas.
Back at the mainstage to begin the evening programming we will confess to scratching our heads, wondering how the only local Indigenous performer at the fest somehow featured Chilliwack’s Bill Henderson (and Claire Lawrence). Now performing as a member of SGaanaGwa, Bill has been a ubiquitous player on just about every stage in BC since the 80s and is certainly deserving of his many honours and board positions in the Canadian music industry. But as an older white man, and much like the underwhelming American blue guitarist Robben Ford on Friday night, it would have been nicer to see any one of the many other diverse artists that have been waiting patiently side stage for the last couple of years to have their moment to shine on the main stage. That said, we were mightily entertained by the ladies of SGaanaGwa. A Haida culture and language project of award-winning singer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, this is a collaboration that aims to explore the Haida worldview of a supernatural landscape through traditional Haida music intertwoven with influences from jazz, blues, folk and rock. Featuring renowned vocalists Saffron Henderson and Camille Henderson, along with Western Canadian Music Awards 2019 Jazz Artist of the Year, bassist Jodi Proznick, their harmonies took us on a haunting journey. This trio of seasoned vocalists was a feast for the ears and eyes, sporting designs by local textile artist Dahlia Drive, who collaborated with Haida artist Reg Davidson to create stunning upcycled tunics.
When Shovels & Rope hit the mainstage with their tiny band of two, it was incredible just how much power and passion and boisterous sound two humans can make. The way they swap instruments, play keys and drums and sing at the same time, chuckle over a child-free evening, and stare each other down to ensure an authentic version of each of your favourite songs, was an experience we did not want to miss. As a musical married couple of the same 20 years ourselves, we would be hideously jealous if we weren’t so danged proud of what they have achieved as a unit. So inspiring. We’re looking forward to watching the long-awaited documentary of the life and times of their musical collaboration.
When tech issues went long, everyone was treated to a surprise tweener set by main stage MC CR Avery. The mayor of East Van wowed with his harmonica chops and an intensely moving and slyly hilarious rendition of his beat box poem “The Boxer Who Just Returned From London.” He’s the Boss, The Boom and the Best, and Vancouver is lucky to have him.
We were facing a 6 a.m. shift on Monday morning and had to jet just as Austin’s legendary Alejandro Escovedo took the stage to the delight of those who are fans of this Mexican American master of punk, rock and roots. We have every confidence that closers Five Alarm Funk wore everyone out, though perhaps some still wanted more.
On the Canadian culture front, while there was surprisingly less local Indigenous talent than we expected at the fest this year, we were tres impressed with the amount of francophone talent on offer. And it was so effortless. It seemed like everyone was slipping un peu de francais into their set as naturally as one might expect from a bilingual country. Clerel, Allison Russell, Lennie Gallant and more were fine representatives of linguistic diversity, and we say Merci, eh? As an aside, fingers crossed for New Brunswick’s Lisa Leblanc whose fantastic Acadian album, Chiac Disco, made the short list for the Polaris Prize this year. We would love to see her here next year.
Etta James once said, “The two things you can’t fake are good food and good music.” A note for the foodies about Pete’s Eats at the fest this year: the chow was fantastic! There were lots of plant-based options, great egg sammies from Crack On, and thanks to Mama’s Fish and Chips for the best value with their tasty seafood by the sea.
Accessibility at the fest was as impressive as always. The ASL sign language interpreters, Ally, Julie and Lisz of ASL Interpreting Inc. (available at 13 concerts and workshops), were an absolute treat this year. Watching Julie and how into her job she was, how hard she danced and translated the energy of each artist was truly delightful. I’m still tickled by her translating an artist request to the soundman for more guitar – just in case he too was hard of hearing.
One last shout out to festival artistic/executive direct Debbi Salmonsen who, like all festival ADs, will shoulder the blame for everything from the rain to the very complicated business of restarting a festival after two years of an industry-crushing global pandemic. Debbi did a fantastic job of bringing together some spectacular talent, with a wonderfully (and sadly still unusual) gender balanced/diverse line up. Every single soul we spoke to was as positive and grateful as could be for this opportunity to gather in our beautiful Jericho Beach Park, celebrating the return of live music, however briefly that may be. Especially for the care taken to keep performers safe by limiting backstage access. When the artists get sick, everyone loses out. Having only just come from running the Calgary Folk Festival in 2018, and with no small amount of budget stress and staring into a nonexistent crystal ball, Debbi took it all on for us, and we are most grateful. Everyone, please speak to your connections about becoming sponsors of the folk fest next year, and do think big. We need a huge push from our entire village to ensure that it continues and grows.
And last, but certainly not least, an enormous thank you to all the volunteers who make music festivals possible. From the smoothly run gates to the free-flowing beer garden, and often from families with multiple generations of festival volunteers, smiling faces greeted everyone with enthusiasm and compassion. Just where would we be without the 1,200-plus volunteers who give their time and energies each year to make this one of the finest folk music festivals in the world? Volunteers make the world’s music go ‘round. Thanks, eh?
Author’s note: As Vancouver-based musicians, Reido and I don’t usually write for anyone but ourselves. This opportunity to represent B.C. via the often more Eastern-centric Roots Music Canada was something we just couldn’t pass up. Did I mention we are competitive songwriters who love a theme? Well, it was 11 years ago that we saw an opportunity to get to play the Vancouver Folk Fest by writing a song about the fest on ukulele for their Pickin’ a Folk Star contest. We thought perhaps we had a shoe-in with our gratitude-infused tune “Volunteers.” Alas, we only received third prize. Not to be put off too easily we took another run at it the following year. And so it was that 10 years ago this weekend, we won first prize and the opportunity to open for Ani Difranco on the main stage with our festival AD-sympathizing anthem “Rain or Shine.” We will end by sending this one out to Debbi and all the volunteers at #VanFolkFest. May next year be the biggest and best yet – and hopefully also include our little gender balanced duo once more.